What Is Brian Williams’ Best Crisis Management Strategy?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 5, 2015 – 9:51 am

I wrote last night about the career-threatening controversy enveloping NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (read that post here), who repeatedly told a false story about being under enemy fire while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The evolution of his tale is quite damning. CNN has a good timeline of how Williams changed the story over time to put himself in the center of the action.

What’s unclear to me is whether he purposefully lied (according to the sentiment I’ve seen on Twitter, that seems to be the overwhelming judgment) or whether he had a false memory of the event. Scoff at that latter option if you wish, but the science is rather clear on how unreliable human memory is, particularly during dramatic events.

Even if that more charitable option is the operational one here, it suggests that Williams is an unreliable witness to major news events which is, by itself, enough to seriously damage his credibility.

From a crisis management standpoint, what should Williams do now?

Brian Williams

I asked that question on Twitter last night; here’s what a few of you said:

Brian Williams Twitter Three

I’m not sure a longer explanation without a meaningful punishment is sufficient. Other people think a suspension is warranted but suggest Williams could survive this incident.

Brian Williams Twitter One

Brian Williams Twitter Two

And this person raises a good point that indicts other people within the news division: Where were the other journalists who knew his story was bull?Brian Williams Twitter Four

In my judgment, NBC News, which has its lead anchor telling tall tales that made him the hero of his own story, must act. They must suspend Williams (or place him on a “leave of absence”) immediately. During that time, they should examine his other reporting to make sure this fabrication is truly an isolated incident. 

That suspension isn’t only the right thing to do, but it may help Williams keep his anchor job. Other stories will quickly fill the news vacuum, and his absence will take at least some of the air out of this story. Upon his return, Williams must provide a more credible explanation to viewers—one that doesn’t contain the glibness of yesterday’s insufficient on-air apology. Although that will resurrect the story and lead to more negative headlines, the second telling of the story won’t be accompanied by the same shock as yesterday’s original revelation. And either way, it’s a necessary step.

Some people are calling for his immediate resignation, and it’s possible Williams will be out. But I still view this as a survivable scandal; a damaged Brian Williams may still be preferable to NBC than an undamaged successor—although Lester Holt would be great at the job.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.  

 


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Did Brian Williams Really Misremember Being Shot At?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 4, 2015 – 7:58 pm

I like NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams. My wife and I DVR his nightly newscast and, on nights we can find the time, we watch at least the “A block” of his newscast. So it’s entirely possible that my favorable feelings toward Mr. Williams are coloring my perspective on a story that emerged late today about a major event he got wrong.

For several years, Williams has been telling a story about being in a helicopter that was shot down while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the story wasn’t true. According to Stars and Stripes

“NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.”

Brian Williams

This afternoon, after being challenged online by several soldiers who were on that plane, Williams admitted in a Facebook post (transcribed by The Wrap) that he misremembered the story:

“To Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael and all those who have posted: You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize. I certainly remember the armored mech platoon, meeting Capt. Eric Nye and of course Tim Terpak. Shortly after they arrived, so did the Orange Crush sandstorm, making virtually all outdoor functions impossible. I honestly don’t remember which of the three choppers Gen. Downing and I slept in, but we spent two nights on the stowable web bench seats in one of the three birds. Later in the invasion when Gen. Downing and I reached Baghdad, I remember searching the parade grounds for Tim’s Bradley to no avail. My attempt to pay tribute to CSM Terpak was to honor his 23+ years in service to our nation, and it had been 12 years since I saw him. The ultimate irony is: In writing up the synopsis of the 2 nights and 3 days I spent with him in the desert, I managed to switch aircraft. Nobody’s trying to steal anyone’s valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty. This was simply an attempt to thank Tim, our military and Veterans everywhere — those who have served while I did not.”

He also offered a rather glib apology tonight on NBC Nightly News:

Many people on Twitter are questioning how anyone—much less a news anchor—could somehow confuse being shot at. I understand where they’re coming from. But memory is notoriously unreliable, and as difficult as it might be to believe, it’s at least possible that Williams is telling the truth.

According to Dr. John Medina, the author of Brain Rules:

“Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality, because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.”

Therefore, there are two possibilities here: That his was an honest error, or that he’s a liar. I’d very much like to believe that it’s the former, and that possibility shouldn’t be immediately dismissed. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But I wouldn’t stop there. I’ve learned through the years that people who make up stories are usually repeat offenders. Therefore, NBC News has an obligation to review any other similar stories Mr. Williams has told about his past and determine their accuracy. Williams should welcome such a review—if he’s telling the truth, such a review would only serve to enhance his credibility and help confirm his explanation.

Either way, this incident is a devastating blow to his credibility—regardless of how it happened, he blew the story. And, as the tweet below (and many more like it) shows, he’s become a target of mockery.

Brian Williams Mocked

This reputational crisis isn’t likely to end immediately. Journalists and bloggers are already picking over the details of how Mr. Williams has told this story in the past (The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple have already posted excellent articles.) In the meantime, the pressure on NBC to take some type of meaningful disciplinary action against their lead anchor will be tremendous.

UPDATE: February 4, 2015, 9:05pm

A reader pointed out that Brian Williams seemed quite comfortable telling his false story on The Late Show With David Letterman. Even if his recollection of this story was due to a “false memory,”  this will serve as a huge hit to his credibility. For balance, though, it’s also worth reading this article in The New Yorker, which shows how faulty human memory can be, especially during dramatic events.  

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NEW: Don’t miss my follow-up post, “What Is Brian Williams’ Best Crisis Management Strategy?

 


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Brad Phillips On The Crisis Intelligence Podcast

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 18, 2015 – 10:28 am

Melissa Agnes is one of my favorite crisis communications professionals in the business, so I was thrilled to be invited as her guest on her excellent podcast.

Our conversation lasted for an hour—but she kept it fast moving, full of useful information and fun. Among other topics, we discussed the following (as summarized on Melissa’s site):

    • What makes a good spokesperson for crisis communication
    • The real-time news cycle and how it impacts in a crisis
    • Tips for making communications “social media friendly”
    • Biggest mistakes spokespeople make in crisis – and how you can avoid them
    • How to save a client or brand who has already stuck their foot in their mouth

The Crisis Intelligence Podcast Logo

If you’re unable to sit and listen for the full hour, you might consider downloading the podcast and listening to it during your commute. You’ll find a particularly energetic “lightning round” at the end. And while you’re at it, subscribe to Melissa’s podcast—she’s really good, and you’ll learn a lot.

You can listen to the podcast on iTunes here (look for episode 33, released on January 18, 2015), or listen to the podcast from Melissa’s website here.

 


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Six Ways To Guard Against The “Fat Cat Backlash”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 13, 2015 – 4:01 am

Ted Flitton Headshot 2This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

I take no comfort in the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea stemming from the hack attack on Sony Pictures, which resulted in the unauthorized release of sensitive information, reams of personal emails, and movie scripts. This crime has been described as one of the worst cases of cyber-hacking against an American company ever.

But at least now the story appears to be refocusing on the central issue of cybercrime.

Since late November, much of the media and public chose to focus on a different issue—illegally obtained leaked information—and demonized a Sony executive and a Hollywood bigwig who dished on celebrities and engaged in inappropriate racially-tinged banter. Both eventually issued apologies as people called for their heads.

Why is Sony the bad guy here? Why did so much of the public choose to attack a company which itself was a victim of a crime?

Sony Under Attack

Call it schadenfreude, a “fat cat backlash,” hating the one percenters; there’s no snazzy title. But it’s clear society often shows a warped sense of morality when large organizations face crises. This misplaced outrage makes it hard for issues managers to gain control of the story and preserve corporate reputation.

Take Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Video from a hotel elevator showed him knocking his then-fiancée unconscious with a single punch. People quibbled over his then-two-game suspension while demanding the commissioner of the National Football League be fired for mishandling the situation. There appeared to be fewer appeals for Rice to lose his job than the Commissioner, although eventually the Ravens did let him go. Clearly, to the sporting public, lax leadership is a sin greater than domestic abuse.

clip_image004

Don’t get me wrong. Both the NFL and Sony deserve harsh criticism for their actions (or inactions). Some level of the outrage is warranted when companies allow bad situations to fester. But the issue is balance. Let’s be outraged by criminal acts while we wring our hands over failed leadership or executive arrogance.

More important, let’s use these incidents to spur crucial social change. The Rice incident made the important subject of domestic violence part of a national conversation, but sadly, only for a few days.

Public relations practitioners need to preserve corporate reputations. But we can and must shape important societal conversations where possible. So how can we guard against the fat cat backlash and maintain balance in emerging issues? A few thoughts:

  1. 1. Be prepared for the inevitable. Technology experts say corporations should expect they will be victimized by cyberthieves. All entities that collect and store the personal information of customers or employees need to do a better job of protecting this information and planning for disasters.
  2. 2. Take responsibility. The NFL rewards men for tough, physical play. This aggression should cease the moment the whistle blows, yet until recently, the league has been reluctant to admit that some men may have trouble differentiating between the locker room and the bedroom. Players do receive some domestic assault education, but many women say it’s not enough. The league should show leadership and really help families. 
  3. Ray Rice
  4. 3. Form thoughtful, pro-active and all-embracing partnerships. The NFL is proud to help women fight breast cancer by partnering with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The league recently launched an anti-domestic abuse campaign. That’s a positive move, but considering that pro sports leagues are largely built on the selfless contributions of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and wives, surely, these multi-billion dollar businesses can do more to truly honor all women.
  5. 4. Conduct company audits and address gaps. Rice’s two-game suspension rankled another player who received a stiffer punishment for off-season marijuana use. Imagine the goodwill generated had the NFL spotted this injustice and quietly worked to rectify it before the Rice incident.
  6. 5. Empower employees. Build a respectful corporate culture. Colleagues who admonish others for poisonous workplace behavior and blue chatter should be praised.
  7. 6. Generate goodwill. Thank supporters and engage with detractors. Return reporters’ calls and help them report stories, even if they are negative.

Taken together, these actions can help a company embroiled in full on crisis, but I fear in an age of uberoutrage their help is marginal. I turn this over to you, faithful readers of the Mr. Media Training blog. Have you experienced the fat cat backlash? How have you regained narrative balance during a corporate storm? 

Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

 


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Fighting Back Against False Media Stories: Two Examples

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 8, 2015 – 5:02 am

In The Media Training Bible, I included a lesson called “Three Things To Do When You’re Falsely Accused.” One of my recommendations was to consider offering your own proof to rebut a reporter’s incorrect claims:

In some cases, there is a place for harder-edged tactics…That means you might hire a private investigator to look into the background of any accusers or conduct a “parallel” investigation to uncover facts that your critics aren’t finding—or are purposely ignoring.

I’ve seen two memorable examples of this recently—one conventional, the other more inventive.

Example One: North Carolina Governor Attacks The Press

Last month, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory accused The Associated Press of “malice” for its reporting about a stock payout he received from a company on whose board he once sat. (The AP stands by its reporting.)

That type of rhetoric isn’t particularly unusual—many politicians attack the press as often as they brush their teeth. But as WRAL.com reported, what made this attack stand out was “an eight-point refutation of the story and a 34-page critique of the reporter’s prior work.”

Pat McCrory

Among other points in his eight-point critique were these:

AP CLAIM: “However, more than a dozen securities lawyers and ethics experts told The Associated Press that such stock payouts are uncommon for elected officials, and raise significant concerns. These experts gave differing opinions about whether laws were broken.”

WHAT THE AP LEFT OUT: What “securities lawyers” and what “ethics experts?” Name them. Not one “expert” was named.

AP CLAIM: “AP reported that McCrory, a Duke retiree, held stock in the company as his administration made key regulatory decisions involving his former employer. Those decisions are now the subject of a federal criminal investigation.”

WHAT THE AP LEFT OUT: This is an outrageous accusation and this is absolutely incorrect – it is a false statement and was printed and published with malice. The AP is saying that the governor is under federal investigation and that is 100% false. Neither the governor nor anyone he hired has been subpoenaed as part of this investigation.

I don’t know the facts of this case well enough to form an educated opinion about who’s right—and I suspect the same is true for most readers. But this gets to another of the three recommendations I made in my book about defending against (what you believe to be) false charges: “Be ‘super’ open: The media tend to perceive those who talk as innocent and those who don’t as guilty.”

Sure, being this aggressive can be perceived by some as a form of defensiveness. But when compared to other potential responses—such as a “no comment” and a refusal to engage with the press—this is a far superior approach. 

 

Example Two: Walmart Responds to The New York Times

Walmart used a cheekier response last summer to rebut a New York Times column with which it disagreed. The response itself—an annotated version of the original column—was admired by some and loathed by others. Personally, I thought its originality put a more creative and attention-grabbing spin on rebutting false narratives.

Walmart Response

These aggressive responses can be a high-wire act, so they’re to be used judiciously and by PR professionals who can determine and manage the risks associated with them. But they can also be incredibly effective at muddying the waters by neutralizing a news article and leaving readers with the impression that there’s more to the story.

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Good PR: Nashville Police Chief’s Brilliant Response

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 5, 2015 – 6:01 am

In my home state of New York, tensions between many local residents and the New York City Police Department are running higher than they have in a long time. We’re far from alone: similar antagonisms exist in cities as far-flung as Ferguson, Oakland, and Boston.

Given that backdrop, the timing was particularly right for a tone-perfect communication between a police chief and the community he serves.

Nashville Chief of Police Steve Anderson had no way of knowing that a letter he wrote in reply to an upset resident would go viral (he included the letter in a Christmas message to his department). The resident, upset about local protestors who had shut down the Interstate, challenged the police department’s response. Chief Anderson responded to him directly in a letter that was direct, challenging, and occasionally confrontational—but also thoughtful, substantive, and polite. 

His letter serves as a good reminder that everything you write has the potential to spread. That can work against you, as we’ve seen in so many “social media fails,” but as the image below demonstrates, it can also represent you beautifully. If you missed this story during the holiday break, you’ll find the full message below.

 

Nashvilles Police Chief Great

 

Email Received

Chief Anderson,

I wanted to send you this email to express my frustration and outrage at how the situation of these protesters is being handled in Nashville. The first night protesters marched here after the incidents in Ferguson they never should have been allowed to shut down the interstate. Instead of at least threatening to arrest them, they were served coffee and hot chocolate. I don’t feel that is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. It sends a message that they can do whatever they want and will be rewarded. Then, this past week, more protesters march around downtown for 3 or more hours and once again, no arrests, and it took THP to keep them from getting on the interstate again. Saturday night, marching and “die ins” at Opry Mills mall. How long are we going to allow these people to disrupt our city?

I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks “Why are the police allowing this?” I wouldn’t have a good answer. If any other group of people wanted to march around the streets they would have to get a permit weeks or months in advance, and I know it’s not possible to get a permit to obstruct traffic and walk on the interstate.

Please understand I am not trying to disrespect you or your department, I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way. Is this going to be allowed to continue until someone gets hurt? Protection of the city should be coming from MNPD, not THP. I also understand that you get direction from the mayor’s office, but these actions are putting the department at disharmony from the majority of the citizens. At some point you are going to have to answer this question to yourself – “Am I following or giving orders that help or hurt the community?” In closing, if these recent actions have been due to pressure from the mayor’s office, please reach out to the people of Nashville, there are many who will gladly contact the mayor’s office as well.

Sincerely, ________   __________

 

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson

 

Reply to Email

Mr. _____________

While I certainly appreciate your offer to intercede on my behalf with our Mayor, you should know that the Mayor has not issued any order, directive or instruction on the matter with which you take issue.  All decisions concerning the police department’s reaction to the recent demonstrations have been made within the police department and approved by me.  Therefore, any reasons or rationale supporting your proposal as what would be the best approach for all of Nashville, and not just a method of utilizing the police department to enforce a personal agenda, should be directed to me.

In that your thoughts deserve consideration, I will attempt to address some of the issues you have raised:

• “Has consideration been given as to whether the response of the police department “help or hurt the community.”

It is our view that every decision made within the police department should be made with the community in mind.  Obviously, there are some matters in which we have no discretion.  On matters in which we do have discretion, careful consideration is given as to the best course of action, always with the welfare of the general public in mind.

That has been the consideration on this issue.  Certainly, in comparing the outcome here in Nashville with what has occurred in some other cities, the results speak for themselves.  I stand on the decisions that have been made.

• “These actions are putting the department at disharmony from the majority of the citizens.”

While I don’t doubt that you sincerely believe that your thoughts represent the majority of citizens, I would ask you to consider the following before you chisel those thoughts in stone.

As imperfect humans, we have a tendency to limit our association with other persons to those persons who are most like us.  Unfortunately, there is even more of a human tendency to stay within our comfort zone by further narrowing those associations to those persons who share our thoughts and opinions.  By doing this we can avoid giving consideration to thoughts and ideas different than our own.  This would make us uncomfortable.  By considering only the thoughts and ideas we are in agreement with, we stay in our comfort zone.  Our own biases get reinforced and reflected back at us leaving no room for any opinion but our own.  By doing this, we often convince ourselves that the majority of the world shares opinion and that anyone with another opinion is, obviously, wrong. 

It is only when we go outside that comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don’t agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter.  We can still disagree and maintain our opinions, but we can now do so knowing that the issue has been given consideration from all four sides.  Or, if we truly give fair consideration to all points of view, we may need to swallow our pride and amend our original thoughts.

And, it is only by giving consideration to the thoughts of all persons, even those that disagree with us, that we can have an understanding as to what constitutes a majority.

• “I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way.”

I have to admit, I am somewhat puzzled by this announcement.  None of the demonstrators in this city have in any way exhibited any propensity for violence or indicated, even verbally, that they would harm anyone.  I can understand how you may feel that your ideologies have been questioned but I am not aware of any occurrence that would give reason for someone to feel physically threatened.

• “I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks “Why are the police allowing this?” I wouldn’t have a good answer.”

It is somewhat perplexing when children are injected into the conversation as an attempt to bolster a position or as an attempt to thwart the position of another.  While this is not the type of conversation I ordinarily engage in, here are some thoughts you may find useful as you talk with your son.

First, it is laudable that you are teaching your son respect for the police and other authority figures.  However, a better lesson might be that it is the government the police serve that should be respected.  The police are merely a representative of a government formed by the people for the people—for all people.  Being respectful of the government would mean being respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.

Later, it might be good to point out that the government needs to be, and is, somewhat flexible, especially in situations where there are minor violations of law.  A government that had zero tolerance for even minor infractions would prove unworkable in short order.

Although this is unlikely, given your zero tolerance stance, suppose that, by accident or perhaps inattention, you found yourself going 40 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour zone and that you were stopped by a police officer.  Then, after making assurances that licenses were in order and that there were no outstanding warrants, the officer asked you not to speed again and did not issue a citation, but merely sent you on your way.

As you have suggested, a question may come to you from the back seat, “How can I respect the police if they will not enforce the law?”  In the event this does occur, here are some facts that might help you answer that question.

In the year 2013, our officers made over four hundred thousand vehicle stops, mostly for traffic violations.  A citation was issued in only about one in six of those stops.  Five of the six received warnings.  This is the police exercising discretion for minor violations of the law.  Few, if any, persons would argue that the police should have no discretion.

This is an explanation you might give your son.  Take into account, however, that the innocence of children can produce the most profound and probing questions.  They often see the world in a very clear and precise manner, their eyes unclouded by the biases life gives us.  This could produce the next question.  “If you believe that the police should enforce the law at all times, why didn’t you insist that the officer write you a ticket?”

I don’t have a suggestion as to how that should be answered.

I do know, however, that this is a very diverse city.  Nashville, and all of America, will be even more diverse when your son becomes an adult.  Certainly, tolerance, respect and consideration for the views of all persons would be valuable attributes for him to take into adulthood.

Mr. ______, thank you for taking the time to express your position on this matter.  I assure that your thoughts will be given all due consideration.  We will continue, however, to make decisions, on this and all matters, that take into account what is best for all of Nashville.

Steve Anderson
Chief of Police

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How One Wrong Word Can Create A Huge Crisis

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 7, 2014 – 6:02 am

William Davis, a writer for the American Nuclear Society and a friend of this blog, recently sent me an article he had written about the huge difference one word can make.

His article focuses on an unremarkable incident that occurred at a nuclear plant in Ukraine late last month. He writes that the event was little more than a “fault in electrical transmission equipment,” which is common “in the world of power generating equipment anywhere, no matter the power source.”

The real problem occurred when Ukraine’s Premier dubbed this minor incident an “accident.” 

The term ‘nuclear accident,’ so still burned into the minds of so many after Chernobyl and Fukushima, refers to a very serious event.  An event that compromises all the layered, defense-in-depth levels of safety protecting nuclear materials from reaching the environment.

In the case of the Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant, Zaporizhia Unit 3, no such event occurred and was never approached.”

The Premier’s use of the wrong word, “accident,” led to terrifying but untrue international headlines and even affected Ukraine’s bond market. William’s post is a perfect example of how an ill-chosen word can magnify—or even create—a crisis.

Disaster Strikes

A Similar Example From A Recent Training

We recently conducted a crisis communications drill related to foodborne illness. The scenario began with a report that six employees, all of whom had attended the same catered event, reported to the facility’s health center with complaints of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

We ran this scenario with different groups of trainees several times, and we saw the same mistake during the practice press conferences each time: Every spokesperson referred to this as an “outbreak.”

“Outbreak” is a scary word, especially when it is applied to a foodborne illness that might be the result of an intentional act. Simply saying that word during a press conference would give the media an easy hook—”An outbreak of unknown origin!” —and the facts up to that point didn’t justify such heightened language.

Other trainees in this drill used the word “situation,” which also suggested a degree of seriousness (perhaps even foul play) that was unjustified by the scenario. Those words—”situation,” “outbreak,” “event,” even “incident”—would only serve to make the established facts sound more severe.

What should the spokespersons have done? They should have simply stuck to the facts:

“What we know is that 1,000 people attended an event and that six of them have checked into a local hospital with symptoms of nausea and gastrointestinal distress. They are being cared for and are expected to make a full recovery. We do not know whether a food item might have been the source of this illness, but we are asking anyone else who attended the event and feels similar symptoms to call us at 312-555-5555.” 

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November 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 30, 2014 – 8:20 am

I’ve rarely seen a beloved celebrity fall from grace as abruptly as Bill Cosby.

Within just a few days of numerous rape and sexual assault allegations being leveled against him, Cosby’s brand as the venerated Dr. Cliff Huxtable devolved into a much darker public perception: serial rapist. 

If he’s completely innocent of all of the allegations being leveled against him—and the reported facts make that difficult to believe—his attempts to mitigate the stunning damage to his career, reputation, and legacy have been disastrous.

I already covered some of the mistakes Cosby made in an earlier post. This month-end post will add a few new thoughts.

Bill Cosby AP Screenshot

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Cosby’s attempt to manage this scandal by refusing to speak when asked about the charges during a nationally broadcast NPR interview only brought more attention to the allegations.

Several of my blog’s readers said that Cosby did the right thing by offering no comment, arguing that any comment would have only fueled the story. But even if they’re right, Cosby should have turned down the interview outright if he wasn’t prepared to deliver a substantive response to an obvious question.

Video of Cosby applying pressure to a reporter from the Associated Press was, in many ways, even more telling. When the reporter did his job by asking Cosby about the allegations, Cosby challenged the journalist’s “integrity,” and asked him to “scuttle” that part of the interview. If Cosby is indeed guilty of some or all of the allegations against him, this video offers an insight into his modus operandi. 

Cosby made other major crisis communications mistakes along the way. His lawyer’s original statement read as follows:

“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.” – John P. Schmitt, lawyer for Bill Cosby

Cosby’s attorney had to retract and reissue that statement in order to clarify that it did not apply to one of Cosby’s accusers. And when accused of being a serial rapist, how is it germane to include that, “at age 77, he is doing his best work?”

Although many PR professionals have written posts about Bill Cosby, the truth is that if he’s guilty, his is not a PR problem. No amount of good communications can rescue a serial rapist—and NBC, Netflix, TV Land, and several concert venues that have either canceled or postponed his appearances seem to agree. 

What can Cosby do now?

If he is innocent, he should have already loudly, publicly, and consistently declared so. At this point, he might give a prime time interview to a trusted anchor and answer every question posed to him directly. Some of my readers argued against that, saying he’s in a “no win” position. I disagree. Viewers are smart enough to decide for themselves whether he appears credible—which he should, if he’s innocent. He’s unlikely to do that, of course, which signals to many people that there’s truth to the allegations.

If he’s guilty, there’s only one thing he can do to restore any part of his legacy: Admit it, pay the legal and financial consequences of his actions, and dedicate the rest of his life and resources to sexual assault and rape causes. I wouldn’t hold my breath for that to happen, either.

Instead, Cosby has chosen the middle ground—allowing his attorney to attack the women who accused him of sexual assault and trying to muddy public perception just enough to allow Cosby to maintain a portion of his career. Cosby’s attorney has every right to challenge inconsistent facts, of course—but instead, he’s called into question the very idea that an honest accuser would have waited so long to tell their stories (in many cases, they tried to—but their stories were reportedly “scuttled,” often as a result of pressure from Cosby and his team). And Cosby may have benefitted from a lack of physical evidence: a Pennsylvania district attorney who considered sexual assault charges against him in 2005 recently said, “I thought he did it.”

There’s virtually nothing Cosby can do at this point to prevent these allegations from being included in the first paragraph of his obituary. Based on the available facts and paired with his incomplete responses, that seems entirely well deserved.

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    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

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